White-water rafters survive close call on Sixmile Creek
By KAYLIN BETTINGER
Published: August 3rd, 2010 04:25 PM
Last Modified: August 3rd, 2010 04:25 PM
One woman was hospitalized and eight people had to be rescued from white water after their raft flipped and deflated on Sixmile Creek Sunday afternoon, according to the Alaska State Troopers.
The rafting party was ill-prepared for the trip, which usually requires dry suits and helmets, according to troopers. They pushed off at the head of the river wearing T-shirts, waders and less-than-adequate flotation devices, troopers said. The Sixmile is a fast-moving river with Class V rapids that runs through a series of three canyons near Hope, off the Seward Highway.
The 16-foot inflatable raft hit rapids and slammed into a rock canyon wall less than 10 minutes into the float, puncturing the boat and flipping the riders into the churning water. Six of the rafters were quickly rescued by other boaters, one swam to shore and two more floated a mile and a half before they were picked up, both suffering from hypothermia, troopers said. One of them, a 19-year-old woman, was flown to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage with a head injury.
"Any time you get out of a dangerous situation like that, you are lucky," said Megan Peters, a trooper spokeswoman.
Josh Hoehne, one of the rafters, said the Sixmile trip was a last-minute decision. He was with his brother-in-law Derrick Bruso and two teenage nephews, Wyatt and Evan, and five friends. All were on a weekend camping trip at Tustumena Lake. They had planned to float the calmer Kasilof River, but on Saturday night they decided to raft Sixmile Creek instead. A couple of them had done it before, he said.
"There was a bit of mob mentality that kicked in instead of common sense," Hoehne said. "All of a sudden it just seemed like a great idea."
Just after 3 p.m., they got to the mouth of Sixmile, where Chugach Outdoor Center guides were preparing their boats and clients for a trip down the river.
Guide Lauren Farrell said she saw them and was concerned with their equipment -- some were wearing chest waders, and their life jackets were not suited for white water. She and a trooper on scene warned them about the Class IV and Class V rapids that they would encounter on the way down.
Hoehne said they should have listened to the trooper.
"We heard them but we didn't hear them," he said. "We had a lot of that mob mentality going on. The more people that get together, the dumber they get."
RAFTER COULDN'T SWIM
Sarah Broughton, another rafter in the mishap, said she was also concerned but she trusted that she was with people who knew what they were doing. Then she saw the guided group with helmets and dry suits.
"At first I thought that they were just geared up because it was just some type of training and then I looked down and could see how fast the water was going," she said.
They had been rafting the day before in the Kenai and she thought Sixmile would be similar. She didn't know how to swim and her life jacket wasn't rated to float her weight. She was wearing polyester tights, sweats and a rain jacket.
They climbed into the boat and pushed off. Minutes later, they hit their first rapid. The boat was thrown into the canyon wall. One of its inflated cells exploded. It tipped, turned.
"There was this moment when we realized we are going over," Hoehne said.
TWO SWEPT AWAY
Charlie Howard and Stephan Beissmann, also guides for The Outdoor Center that day, were both on the water ahead of the capsized raft. Six floating rafters came toward them and they pulled them into their boats. They watched another rafter swim to safety. But the last two rafters, Sarah Broughton's 19-year-old sister Kayla and Louis Leon, disappeared downriver with their damaged boat.
Howard, in a smaller raft, followed them through the next two rapids into a narrow gorge. He had to maneuver around the damaged raft to get to both of them. Broughton was out in front of him and he saw her go under. It was in a dangerous area called Split Rocks, where underwater currents create places where people can get stuck under the bank.
"I knew she had gone into a pretty bad spot," he said.
All Kayla Broughton remembers is her knees touching the bottom, she said.
"At that point, I was trying to breathe, holding on to the life jacket," she said. "Under the water, I couldn't feel the coldness. I was probably already numb."
She was down for 45 seconds or a minute, Howard said. When she came up, she was on her back, unresponsive. Charlie paddled to her and got her onto his raft. She gasped and threw up water.
He took the two down the next set of rapids to a place where other Outdoor Center guides and help were waiting. They laid Broughton on a piece of plywood as a makeshift backboard.
"The look on her face was completely and utterly dazed," her sister Sarah said. "She looked like she was dead."
Kayla Broughton was medevacked to Anchorage, where she was treated and discharged on Monday.
"I'm really happy to be alive," Sarah Broughton said. "We're all thankful. We're all extremely thankful."